A federal safety inspector tipped off a coronavirus-tainted Pennsylvania meatpacking plant before visiting the next day — then failed to issue a citation, according to testimony in a lawsuit accusing the agency of failing to do its job.
The inspector said notifying a plant before an inspection wasn’t typical practice for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, but that she was told to do it by her supervisors for her own safety, according to a court transcript.
“OSHA has a right to protect their employees also,” she said when pressed by a federal judge at a hearing.
Three anonymous workers at the Maid-Rite plant in Dumore claim the regulator failed to respond to complaints that they were forced to work shoulder-to-shoulder and weren’t provided with masks or breaks to wash or sanitize their hands. That was after another worker told OSHA “about half the plant is out sick.”
The coronavirus rampaged through U.S. meatpacking plants this spring, sickening thousands of employees in more than 200 facilities.
A plant manager at Maid-Rite said by phone late Friday that no one was available to comment.
In response to the Labor Department’s request for dismissal of the suit, lawyers for the workers said in a filing Friday that the pre-planned visit defeated the purpose of surprise inspections.
“The advance notice mattered. Workers report that in anticipation of the inspection, Maid-Rite made changes to hide the extent of its unsafe working conditions, spacing workers further along production lines,” according to the filing. “After the inspection, workers were once again forced to work immediately next to each other, sometimes touching.”
They want the court to order OSHA to take steps to declare the plant an imminent danger or conduct a prompt, unannounced on-site inspection of the facility.
The Labor Department argued last month that workers failed to prove an imminent hazard existed and warned that if the court gives the workers what they seek, an “avalanche” of worker suits could follow.
The AFL-CIO sued OSHA earlier in the pandemic to put emergency safety standards in place. The U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington rejected the union’s request.
The agency has received more than 7,000 complaints since the start of the pandemic, but has only issued four citations, officials said at the July 31 hearing.
OSHA didn’t respond immediately to a request for comment Friday.
The case is Jane Does I, II, III v. Scalia, 3:20-cv-01260, U.S. District Court, Middle District of Pennsylvania (Scranton).
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